Sunday, December 03, 2000

Title thrills Highlands fans

Winning team a way of life

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE - A state football championship is what the Highlands Bluebirds fans expect each year but never take for granted.

        The Birds, as they are often called in Fort Thomas, heated up a cold Cardinal stadium Saturday afternoon by winning their third straight and 15th overall Class AAA title with a 48-27 win over Owensboro.

        Kentucky's most prolific team when it comes to winning state titles gave fans like Mike Bradford just what the 14-year-old dreams of each and every autumn when football practice begins.

[photo] Highlands fans cheer during the championship game Saturday. The Bluebirds beat Owensboro, 48-27, for their third straight state title.
(Mike Simons photo)
| ZOOM |
        “It's exciting to be around Highlands football. I want to be a part of the team some day,” said Mike, whose father, Gary “Moose” Bradford, played on the 1977 championship team.

        “I want to be like my dad and win it all,” he said.

        “Me too,” said ball boy Ben Faulkner, 11. “I want to play for Highlands more than anything.”

        Thousands of fans made the now familiar two-hour trip here Saturday morning, some tailgating in the stadium parking lot for what has become an unofficial holiday in Fort Thomas, the day once a year when the town heads south to watch the Birds bring home another trophy.

        “People in Fort Thomas get to the point where they expect to win every year,” said Rick Rafferty, a teacher at Johnson Elementary School and a Fort Thomas resident. “And that's what they always seem to do.”

        Rooting for Highlands is not a pastime in Fort Thomas, it is a community trait that explains the special feeling fans get when the leaves change in the fall and there's no place on Friday nights to be except at “the game.”

        “It's a great tradition, there is nothing else around like it in Kentucky,” said Derek Smith, a member of the 1998 state championship team and now the starting tight end for the University of Kentucky.

        “This year's team might be the best ever,” Mr. Smith said.

        For the last three years on state championship Saturday, Highlands grad Pat Donelan has sat huddled with his wife, Lisa, 37, in Cardinal Stadium, watching their son, Jake, become a champion. He is a wide receiver and backup quarterback.

        “This is the third year in a row he's won a championship, and he's really contributed and that means a lot to him,” Mr. Donelan said Saturday with a smile so big it looked to be running out of face.

        “It's so neat to see him out there and be a part of all this,” he said. “It's something special.”

        Mandy Sheanshang, 18, a 1999 Highlands graduate in her freshman year at Eastern Kentucky University, came over from Richmond, Ky., to root on her alma mater.

        “There's a lot of people here from college who want to cheer for the younger kids we went to school with,” Ms. Sheanshang as she stood in line for a cup of hot chocolate.

        “And it's the tradition. Once you're a part of it you want to be here when they win,” she said.

        Fort Thomas resident Joe Dean helped fuel that tradition by bringing his two sons, Alex, 7, and Colin, 5, to the game.

        “Go Birds. Brent Hamblen, he's the man,” Colin said of the Highlands All-State receiver.

        And though they are just fifth-graders at Woodfill Elementary, Victoria Poindexter and Jessica Reynolds are veterans of three title games.

        “Me and my friends all come together,” said Victoria, whose sister, Elizabeth, is a varsity cheerleader. “The whole football season we talk about it because we know Highlands is going to win the championship.”


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